Worship Leads to Witness (Part 4)
Updated: Nov 21
As worship led to witness in the early church, the message of Christ's transforming power spread from 3,000 at Pentecost (Acts 2) to nearly 20,000,000 throughout the Roman Empire in a period of approximately three hundred years, according to Rodney Stark. Socially Christianity went viral. It became a decentralized person to person, disciple to disciple movement which became increasingly contagious. To do this the early church had to overcome the enormous barriers which included:
persecution and opposition which came from the Jewish religious establishment and Roman authorities.
geographic expansiveness of an empire which stretched out over an area of 2.2 million square miles, covered by 50,000 miles of roads with 120 million people who lived in 50 different countries.
social stratification in which society was layered by the wealthy on top, artisans, peasant and slaves below.
lack of standardized literature (Bible) or the means to transmit it on a wide scale as it became available.
a complex diversity of languages, religions and cultures.
So, how did the gospel spread so rapidly in the scope of three centuries? A big part of the answer is that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the church spread as a people to people, disciple to disciple movement where the worship gatherings equipped the viral spread of the gospel. The church's worship consisted of simple, memorable and repeatable practices and content which everyday followers of Jesus could pass on to others. The early church harnessed the power of viral knowledge as a vital component to the sustainable spread and multiplication of discipleship.
In this final article of Worship Leads to Witness, we will see how the worship gathering advanced the witness of Christ through the promotion and practice of viral knowledge. Then we will look at ways this can be practiced in worship today.
Viral Practices of the Early Church
At Pentecost, as seen in the previous article, many among the 3000 would have met in Jerusalem with the apostles. Those who lived in Jerusalem would have continued meeting with the apostles for the next several years. A large number of those who were visiting from the other 15 countries (Acts 2:9-11) may have been with the apostles for a little while and took what they were taught and proclaimed it in their home countries. In both cases there developed a decentralized movement in Jerusalem and beyond where disciples made disciples who made more disciples. The writer in Acts recounts how this began to happen:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)
Acts describes a viral content (apostle's teaching) and viral practices (fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer). Let's take a deeper dive into what this looked like.
Core Stories: The apostle's would have passed on core stories about Jesus. The initial stories would have most likely included:
Jesus' baptism (Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 9:1-11, Luke 3:21-22, John 1:29-34)
Peter's confession of Jesus as Messiah (Matthew 16:13-20, Mark 8:27-33, Luke 9:18-20)
The Triumphal Entry (Matthew 21.1-9, Mark 11.1-10, Luke 19.28-40, John 12.12-19)
The Last Supper (Matthew 26.26-29, Mark 14.22-25, Luke 22.15-20)
Arrest and Trial (Matthew 26.47-58, Mark 14.43-65, Luke 22.47-71, John 18.2-24)
Crucifixion (Matthew 27.33-37, Mark 15.22-26, Luke 23.33-34, John 19.17-27)
Death (Matthew 27.45-54, Mark 15.33-39, Luke 23.44-48, John 19.28-30)
Burial (Matthew 27.57-61, Mark 15.42-47, Luke 23.50-56, John 19.38-42)
Resurrection (Matthew 28.9-10, Mark 16.9-11, Luke 24.10-11, John 20.14-18).
The stories would have been stated over and over, and those who heard those stories told them over and over and so on. These were rehearsed memories. This required the church to be active learners to pass on these stories under a carefully guided process of the apostles and the Christian community.
Creeds: They passed on core doctrinal formulations we call creeds. These are short statements that taught and guided their understanding of doctrine. These creeds would have been recited over and over in their gatherings as a church. Because they were so well known the New Testament writers could reference them in a meaningful way. Here a some examples from Paul:
If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:9)
there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. (1 Corinthians 8:6)
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. (1 Corinthians 12:3-4)
Doxology: These are expressions of praise to the majesty and greatness of God recited or sung by the gathered believers.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21)
Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. (Hebrews 13:20-21)
Hymns & Songs: The early church used music as a means to teach and reinforce a doctrinal understanding of Jesus. This is evidenced in Paul's guidance to the church in Ephesus when he instructs them to be:
…filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. (Ephesians 5:18-19)
When Paul directs them to "speak to one another," their singing was not just directed to God but for the discipleship of the church.
Love (Agape) Feasts: These were simple communal meals and services that were intended to promote fellowship and Christian love among the participants. The highlight of these meals was the celebration of the Lord's Supper which Jesus commanded us to take until he returns. (Luke 22:19, 1 Corinthians 11:26) Thus, much of the worship and discipleship of the church was done around a table where everyone could participate in a natural setting.
There are others which could be listed, like baptism. The point is that the early church was able to make disciples who made disciples in the midst of insurmountable limitations and obstacles because they used their worship gatherings to accelerate discipleship. Christianity was able to spread rapidly because the early church equipped everyday people with the gospel through simple, memorable and repeatable content and practices. They were not passive consumers because the weekly worship gatherings actively equipped them to be disciple-makers.
Viral Worship Today
Our situation in the modern church is obviously different. We are awash with resources, products, technology all made possible by multimillion dollar industries which seek to enhance our worship services. While it would be a big mistake to dismiss all of this, it is wise to understand that our worship services have become increasingly driven by a consumer mindset that has made worshipers overfed and under exercised. We are being conditioned to be passive consumers rather than trained to be active disciples.
With all of their obstacles, the early church had a decisive advantage over the modern church in that they had to actively practice and pass on what they were taught or else their message would have died. They had to internalize it in a way that transformed them. In order for our worship to lead to witness, we need to use our weekly gatherings for the activation and reinforcement of discipleship through simple, memorable and repeatable content and practices. Let's conclude by looking at how we can apply viral knowledge like the New Testament church did.
Apostles Teaching: All of the Bible is equally inspired and equally God's Word and ALL of it should be taught and applied. While fully believing this, it also reasonable to understand that there are key stories, scriptures and passages which should be more frequently taught, referenced, and sung (if there are songs related to them), etc. For example, I often teach on Matthew 16:13-30 (Peter's confession of Jesus as Messiah) than I do some other stories in the gospels. The reason is not that it is more inspired than any other stories, but it is more central to understanding who we are called to be than, say, the genealogy of Joseph. (Matthew 3:23-38) Through emphasizing strategic stories, the church will disciple its people in a more simple, memorable and repeatable process to practice and pass on the truths in these stories in spiritual conversations with others.
Creeds & Doxologies: A church can always recite the Apostle's Creed or sing the traditional Doxology, yet the creeds and doxologies contained within scripture can be emphasized with greater effectiveness. There can be core verses, again declared with reasonable frequency, describing the nature, glory, character and purposes of God. For this to be a discipleship process, strategic scriptures should be chosen. These can be especially important to use as a prayer of blessing over the gathered church. For example,
To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy—to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen. (Jude 1:24-25)
What a powerful encouragement to speak over or recite together as a gathered church. As these scriptures become more familiar they can be brought to mind to elevate one's thoughts to God-shaped thinking.
Hymns & Songs: Songs of worship are powerful means for many to connect with the truth of God's Word. The selected music should reflect the key truths of discipleship which need to be promoted. Familiarity and repetition is key. They should be sung often enough so that singing them is second nature so that the words sung throughout the week or at least repeated in people's thinking. New songs can and should be added, but there should be a plan to make them familiar. To encourage worship through the week, the church can create a playlist on Spotify (or whatever music streaming service) of the songs commonly used in the worship service. This creates an opportunity for ongoing participation.
The Lord's Supper: Churches often have a set schedule of when they take communion: weekly, monthly, quarterly, etc. Communion is designed by Jesus to be simple. We do not need to fancy it up in any way to help it to become significant. But sometimes it is beneficial to have special services dedicated completely to remembering the broken body and shed blood of Christ which The Lord's Supper is meant to bring to mind. The music, the message, the scripture reading, the time allowed for reflection and preparation can all be centered around this important act of remembering. Further, it is a great practice to let other respected leaders in the church administer the elements of communion and not just those called by the title, "pastor." The church can encourage people in their families, small groups or ministry teams to take it together outside the Sunday service. This can even be done as part of a fellowship meal. When the communion was taken by the early church, it was more often done in homes during a meal--the love (agape) feast. We can do the same.
As we obey the command of Jesus to make disciples, we will find countless ways, through the power and creativity of the Holy Spirit, to discover how our worship can lead to witness.
Click here to read Worship Leads to Witness (Part 1) to explore the most beautiful picture of God in the Bible.
Check out the Worship Leads to Witness (Part 2) to see how Jesus turns the outcast of society into outgoing for the gospel.
Check out the Worship Leads to Witness (Part 3) to see how worship leads to reaching the nations.